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Plymouth Argyle v Sunderland - Sky Bet League One

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How should Lee Johnson treat Sunderland’s final league game of the season?

Is this a free pass, a time to try out new things, or a game to play our strongest XI in the hope of finding real form?

Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Matt Smith says... Play those with a point to prove

How important you consider Sunday’s game against Northampton to be is probably dependent upon which of the many branches of play-offology you adhere to. Those of an orthodox bent will see it as crucial in securing that 3rd or 4th place position which confers the dubious advantage of playing the 2nd leg at home against a theoretically less threatening side. Convinced revisionists will likewise view the game as pivotal but only insofar as it offers the possibility of finishing as low as possible, a theoretically advantageous position that is stubbornly and consistently contradicted by practical evidence. For nihilist adherents of the post-modern ‘lottery’ theory, however, the game is meaningless as it’s purely the ticket, already secured, that counts.

There seems to be little advantage to Sunderland in playing the 2nd leg at home, even if (or especially if?) fans return for the playoffs. In fact, most playoff contenders’ away form is significantly better, especially Lincoln’s, than their supposed home advantage. There’s also no obvious preferred playoff contender and most likely no way of engineering a meeting with them, through the result of the Northampton game, even if there was.

All this isn’t to say that the game is meaningless. A confidence-boosting win with a few fringe players giving Johnson something to think about would be the ideal scenario. Giving both Younger and, ahem, McFadzean a generous run out, as well as another chance for Diamond and Stewart at least, ensures a contingent among the starting 11 with a definite dog in the fight and who won’t be treating the game as primarily an exercise in injury-avoidance.

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League One
Another good performance from Jack Diamond could see him get a starting berth for the playoffs
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

Malc Dugdale says... Just win!

It is easy to think that Johnson will do something very different for the last game of the season – maybe rest a few players, introduce some youth, even give a couple of academy products a league debut. My view though is, if Johnson is a man of his word, he will be doing very little different to normal (whatever that is!).

He has banged on for his entire tenure that all he focuses on is winning the next game, and that what he is about is victory in every match. So, if he does anything majorly different, he is a bit of a hypocrite, is he not?

I for one am not so sure that Wyke and/or McGeady could not have played in the Plymouth game, though I do believe that the formation and personnel were a good choice. It may be true that if we had not already secured a slot in the playoffs, that one or both would have come back (at least to the bench) to make sure of that playoff berth at home to the Cobblers. Point is, if his ethos is that he plays to win every match then we have to believe that he will play the strongest side to the end, as we would and should in his shoes.

In reality, he now has the luxury of flexibility that he will not have very often, so I would be happy to see him try out Younger at the back, to see more of Diamond and maybe Neil, and also more of Stewart and Gooch, as that link up really went well all those miles down south last time out.

What is most important is that we are ready for whatever the playoffs might bring, and I (we all) have to trust in the coach and his staff that they will use this last normal match of the season against an already down Northampton to improve our chances.

We need to build knowledge and options for the games to come, to regain confidence and pride where that run without a win may have dented it, and to get the team spirit right up where it needs to be.

One thing we lacked in the Trophy final versus Pompey and the playoff final against Charlton two seasons ago was optimal self-belief. Now we have executed the voodoo doll that prevented a win at Wembley, we need to take that belief up a level into this playoff sequence, and step up out of this league. I’d love that to happen for the gaffer, the squad, and the fans.

Let's batter them however the gaffer sees most fit, that will do.

Sunderland v Blackpool - Sky Bet League One
Will Gooch get another run out after his stellar show at Home Park?
Photo by Mark Fletcher/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ant Waterson says... Bring in Younger and Hawkes

For me, it’s a chance to get another win under our belts before the playoffs. I think some of our playoff contenders will be looking at our form and thinking we are a soft touch.

Personally, on the player front, I would like to see Maguire given a start as his presence changed the game on Saturday. His penalty was despatched with venom and the celebration was from a player desperate to see us succeed.

My one issue at the moment would be Bailey Wright. Again he looked off the pace on Saturday and I think we should take a look at Younger and give him a full 90 to see what he can do. Josh Hawkes has been in blistering form for the under 23s and if McGeady is still unfit then I would love to see him make the bench.

To get the win would be huge really. We would have the chance to finish 3rd and face the team 6th however that may be. Lincoln and Blackpool will be thinking the same thing so it’s important we aim to match their result.

Northampton will come to the Stadium of Light full of thunder, so I’m expecting a comfortable win to keep the momentum going. We are still in this everyone. Keep the faith.

Sunderland v Rochdale - Sky Bet League One
Ant would like to see Younger given a run out
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Martin Wanless says... Treat this as the start of a (hopefully) four-game mini-league

Saturday’s game gave Lee Johnson some food for thought. Sometimes it happens – an injury or suspension gives a player the chance to replace another, and all of a sudden you’ve hit on something. Denis Smith had that when Gabbiadini’s planned strike partner Keith Bertschin was injured in Marco’s second game. Gates replaced Bertschin and the rest was history. We’ve seen it earlier in the season when injuries jettisoned Sanderson into a regular first-team place, and we went on an incredible run.

The absence of Wyke and McGeady would seem on paper to be huge blows. However, I’m not so sure. While McGeady’s done exceptionally well since his return, I was never one to be banging the drum for his recall under Parkinson. When he plays the team often tries to play everything through him and it sometimes can limit the effectiveness of the unit.

It’s a similar story to Wyke. You can’t knock a 30-goal striker. But I’m going to – because he’s incredibly one-dimensional. Teams have figured out how to stop the McGeady > Wyke combo, so we need something new. Something different. An element of surprise. (That’s not a criticism of Wyke by the way, more the way in which the squad’s been built and he’s being used. He’s a good option at this level, but shouldn’t be the only option, as he has been most of this season).

So, I’d love to see Johnson leave McGeady and Wyke – and O’Brien – on the sidelines on Sunday. Play Maguire from the start – I’ve said it before but I have a feeling he could be critically important for us in the playoffs. Let Stewart lead the line again. Give Gooch another go in the 10 and let either Jones or Diamond have another game on the wing.

It really doesn’t matter what individual players have done so far this season, it’s the next run of – hopefully – four games that matters. I really hope Johnson uses this game to try out the other options again. A strong performance against Northampton will really get the confidence up – and may well give the other members of the squad a kick up the backside, too. All of which will give us a really strong hand as we head towards the playoffs.


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